Testing Our Assumption: Challenging Fossil Fuel Companies Helps Solve Climate Change

A rising variety of communities, and legal professionals, around the globe are focusing their consideration on world fossil gasoline firms, arguing that they’re legally liable for his or her merchandise’ contribution to local weather change and not less than partially accountable for ensuing climate-related prices. Different authorized investigations and circumstances emphasize that the businesses misled the general public and their shareholders in regards to the world dangers of fossil gasoline use, and that these actions have slowed progress on local weather insurance policies around the globe.

Broadly, communities are asking:

  • Do oil, gasoline and coal firms bear some obligation for promoting merchandise that they’ve recognized for many years would hurt individuals?
  • Does insisting on that obligation symbolize a turning level within the battle in opposition to local weather change, much like when tobacco and asbestos firms have been first held answerable for hurt ensuing from their merchandise?
  • How can our communities and their taxpayers afford to cope with the rising tide of local weather prices, particularly if the businesses that made huge income promoting fossil fuels don’t pay a share of these prices?

These campaigns and authorized methods search to pressure Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco and different main fossil gasoline firms to include the prices of their merchandise into their backside line and enterprise mannequin. These firms make use of among the prime minds on power and have huge assets that might assist the world pivot rapidly away from fossil fuels – if they’d the motivation to take action.

The hope is that if these firms danger paying a share of the prices related to oil, gasoline and coal burning, then they and their traders will make completely different selections about what their future as an power firm seems to be like. They’d ultimately have an incentive to cease lobbying in opposition to local weather motion, and quickly enhance their funding in different power and creating new, low emissions expertise, re-evaluating the enterprise mannequin of their firms.

These climate-focused authorized actions and campaigns are nonetheless comparatively younger and haven’t, not less than but, resulted in ultimate authorized rulings in opposition to fossil gasoline firms. Nonetheless, it’s not too early have a look at how fossil gasoline firms have responded to calls to take duty. Is there any signal that such a authorized technique does have the potential to alter the behaviour of worldwide firms? Will they be ignored, fought aggressively, or can “fossil gasoline accountability campaigns” assist deal with local weather change by altering the behaviour of profit-motivated fossil gasoline firms?

The state of the campaigns globally and in Canada

Exterior Canada, over a dozen U.S. cities and one state (Rhode Island) have sued fossil gasoline firms for a share of the prices of getting ready for local weather change. Claims introduced by New York Metropolis, San Francisco and Oakland have been dismissed, however these selections are beneath attraction.

In the meantime, the Peruvian neighborhood of Huarez has sued coal big RWE in Germany for a share of the prices of lowering the climate-related dangers from a glacial dam, with a court docket of attraction giving the case the inexperienced gentle to proceed. Mates of the Earth Netherlands is suing Royal Dutch Shell to pressure it to do extra on local weather change. Within the Philippines, a human rights grievance in opposition to 47 fossil gasoline firms (together with 5 Canadian firms) for his or her respective contributions to local weather change has simply wrapped up, with the Fee scheduled to launch its findings in June 2019. Just lately the island nation of Vanuatu additionally introduced an intention to sue fossil gasoline firms.

Canadian communities have thus far resorted to letters, relatively than the courts. Sixteen BC native governments have despatched “Climate Accountability Letters” to 20 of the world’s largest fossil gasoline firms which – by their operations and merchandise – have helped trigger virtually 30% of human-caused GHG emissions. One in all these communities, Whistler, not too long ago courted nationwide controversy as a result of it selected to additionally ship a duplicate of its letter to a Canadian firm (not one of the 20 largest are Canadian). Just lately, nonetheless, some BC communities have began contemplating litigation, and there are stories that others are desirous about it.

There have additionally been discussions about fossil gasoline firm legal responsibility in Ontario. For example, Greenpeace Canada is planning a toolkit for communities contemplating lawsuits, and the Ontario NDP Vitality and Climate Change Critic, Peter Tabuns, launched a Legal responsibility for Climate-related Harms Act within the Ontario legislature that will have made it simpler to sue fossil gasoline producers for local weather prices (it was in the end defeated).

How has business responded?

Wanting again on the behaviour of Exxon, Chevron, Shell and different fossil gasoline giants over the previous a long time, and the way in which that they’ve undermined renewable expertise, lobbied in opposition to local weather motion and made huge income promoting their reserves as quick as attainable, it’s fairly clear that they’ve lacked a monetary incentive to do their half to unravel local weather change. The truth is, they’ve had an incentive to do the other.

So with the fossil gasoline business on now discover that it may be held to account, and the dangers of litigation turning into ever extra credible, are we seeing higher company behaviour? It seems that we may be, not less than from among the bigger gamers. (See “the Good,” under)

We’re additionally seeing retaliation and PR responses. Whereas it is a drawback for these focused by the business, from a sure perspective all these responses point out that the business is taking the specter of legal responsibility critically. (Nonetheless, we’ll name this “the Dangerous,” under).

The Good

It’s usually laborious to inform for positive whether or not an organization’s actions are the results of the dangers of litigation. A few of the following clearly are, however others are nonetheless main adjustments in previous apply which have occurred because the dangers of litigation started to crystalize.

  • Chevron discloses local weather litigation danger. In February 2017 Chevron grew to become the primary main fossil gasoline firm to acknowledge the chance of being sued for its contribution to local weather change in its disclosures to shareholders, writing about an “elevated risk of governmental investigations and, probably, non-public litigation in opposition to the corporate.” This was months earlier than the present spherical of lawsuits within the U.S. had been launched, however after the launch of the RWE case, the Philippines Human Rights Fee and our Climate Regulation in our Palms
  • ExxonMobil and others assist carbon taxes. In February 2017 the newly launched Climate Management Council (CLC), established by Exxon, Shell, BP and others, unveiled a proposal for a carbon tax of $40/tonne. Strongly suggesting that this new initiative was linked to worry of local weather litigation, the authors explicitly proposed {that a} carbon tax ought to deliver “an finish to federal and state tort legal responsibility for emitters.” In October 2018 Exxon contributed $1 million to the Individuals for Carbon Dividend committee of the CLC to advocate for this carbon tax proposal. Nonetheless, some local weather advocates have fearful that the true objective of this newfound curiosity in carbon taxes could also be to take away legal responsibility.
  • Shell boosts funding in renewables. In July 2017, Shell upped its funding in renewable power from $200 million per yr to $1 billion per yr after which to $2 billion per yr in November 2017. The July enhance in funding was truly a number of days previous to the primary U.S. lawsuit being filed in opposition to the corporate (though Shell was an lively participant within the Philippines Human Rights grievance). By November, 5 lawsuits had been filed, together with lawsuits from San Francisco and Oakland that singled out Shell with simply 4 different fossil gasoline giants. There’s nothing conclusively suggesting a hyperlink between litigation and Shell’s newfound curiosity in renewable power, though Shell itself has referenced its $2 billion dedication in its response to the Metropolis of Victoria’s demand that the corporate pay a share of local weather prices.
  • ExxonMobil distances itself from anti-climate lobbying. In July 2018 ExxonMobil withdrew from the American Legislative Trade Council (ALEC), an business foyer group, over the group’s assist for local weather denial. Because the Union of Involved Scientists factors out, the corporate nonetheless maintains ties with and funding for different organizations that advance local weather denial, however nonetheless, ExxonMobil’s departure from ALEC looks as if a constructive shift.
  • Chevron and ExxonMobil decide to lowering emissions. In September 2018 Chevron, ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum grew to become the primary U.S. members of the Oil and Fuel Climate Initiative, making commitments to scale back their very own emissions.

Not one of the above adjustments symbolize the kind of ground-breaking shifts that we’d see if these oil and gasoline firms actually acknowledged that they may very well be held answerable for hurt brought on by local weather change. Nonetheless, they do symbolize a change in how these firms are partaking on local weather change, probably with an eye fixed to arguing that their actions have been affordable ought to litigation go forward. Some are clearly linked to the dangers of legal responsibility – whereas others could (or could not) be. The query is whether or not these traits will proceed and whether or not firms will begin lowering their funding in fossil fuels and growing funding in renewables in additional important methods.

The Dangerous

After all, the information is just not all good. No firm likes being informed that its enterprise mannequin is predicated on merchandise that hurt communities, and that it must pay up. Retaliation by the fossil gasoline business is proof that you’ve got their consideration. Retaliation has been ramping up, each within the regulation courts and within the court docket of public opinion.

Within the courts, ExxonMobil has launched a sequence of aggressive authorized actions in opposition to among the cities and legal professionals which have sued it. The corporate alleges that conferences to debate authorized technique quantity to an unlawful conspiracy to coerce the corporate into altering its practices. Different authorized actions launched by ExxonMobil counsel that the native authorities plaintiffs which have filed litigation have misled their very own traders in regards to the dangers to town of sea stage rise (though a former Securities and Trade Fee official discovered nothing fallacious within the cities’ disclosures).

Within the court docket of public opinion, the business response, not less than within the U.S., has been led by the satirically named Producers Accountability Undertaking (MAP), a challenge of the Nationwide Affiliation of Producers (NAM). In keeping with NAM, litigation in opposition to fossil gasoline firms “jeopardizes the power of all producers to proceed rising and offering jobs to tens of millions of Individuals.”

MAP has been putting opinion items in papers throughout the U.S. dismissing the native authorities lawsuits as ridiculous, unwinnable or introduced for political functions. Additionally they assault the person legal professionals bringing the cases, generally echoing Exxon’s suggestion that they’re a part of a conspiracy or framing them as ambulance chasers. The legal professionals within the U.S. are bringing their circumstances on a “contingency foundation,” that means that they may solely be paid in the event that they win, which has put MAP within the awkward place of concurrently arguing that the circumstances are ridiculous and will likely be dismissed whereas additionally arguing that the legal professionals anticipate to win and be paid massive bucks.

Right here in Canada, the letters despatched by native governments to the world’s largest fossil gasoline firms flew beneath the general public radar till not too long ago, when the Resort Municipality of Whistler precipitated a boycott marketing campaign by additionally sending one copy of its letter to a Canadian firm. Some Alberta oil and gasoline firms rapidly satisfied CIBC to cancel a part of its upcoming investor convention in Whistler, whereas the municipality was lambasted within the mainstream media and on social media. A resort vacation spot like Whistler is especially weak each to fees of local weather hypocrisy and to boycotts, however the ensuing furor has undoubtedly proven that stating that oil and gasoline firms must take some duty for his or her merchandise – even by a letter as an alternative of litigation – may end up in retaliation.


On one hand, the fossil gasoline business continues to broaden its manufacturing and plans for that to proceed. On the opposite, local weather scientists warn that local weather change prices might be virtually unimaginable and will certainly be devastating. The disconnect between the hurt brought on and the income being made by fossil gasoline air pollution are getting more and more laborious to disregard.

Campaigns and authorized methods to carry fossil gasoline firms accountable for native impacts straight problem that disconnect. As such, it’s not shocking that they’ve resulted in blow-back and retaliation from the oil and gasoline business and its supporters. The ferocity of the response could also be proof of how badly the business desires to keep away from dialogue of its ethical and obligation to keep away from an unimaginable future.

Nonetheless, there are hopeful indicators that this method additionally encourages not less than some constructive adjustments amongst fossil gasoline firm behaviour, if not but the kind of dramatic shifts in enterprise mannequin that the world wants. We hope that these extra constructive adjustments could enhance as extra communities around the globe begin demanding that the fossil gasoline business share among the duty for the prices related to local weather change.

Testing Our Assumption: Challenging Fossil Fuel Companies Helps Solve Climate Change

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